Of Wolves and Men

Saturday, December 10, 2011 - 13:36
Bold wolves not unusual

Last year, a number of Eagle River area residents reported run-ins with strangely aggressive wolves.

But wolves acting bold around humans — especially humans with dogs — is not as shocking as it may seem.

If humans are with a dog or dogs, it’s not unusual for wolves to approach when they are in a pack's territory, according to wolf expert L. David Mech, who answered a few questions about what constitutes “normal” wolf behavior via e-mail.

Mech has studied wolves since 1958. He’s a senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota.

“Most if not all wolves consider dogs as competitors (like strange wolves) and/or as prey, just like they would consider cats, squirrels, mink, otters, or any other live creature (except usually not humans),” Mech wrote. “Wherever wolves and dogs live near each other, wolves tend to kill dogs.”   

A 2002 technical bulletin by an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist showed that even without dogs present, wolves sometimes approached or even attacked people.

Wolf biologist Mark McNay looked at 80 cases of wolf-human encounters in Alaska and Canada in his 52-page report. McNay found 39 cases of aggression among healthy wolves, 12 among rabid or suspected rabid wolves and 29 showing fearless behavior.

In 16 cases, healthy wolves bit people, including six severe bite injuries, four of them involving children.

People with dogs accounted for six of the aggressive cases among healthy wolves —wolves bit the humans involved twice. Habituation — wolves that became used to people, as local wolves appeared to last year — accounted for 11 of the unprovoked attacks, McNay found.

He described a range of scenarios. In one, a wolf attacked a man while he slept next to a campfire; his buddy chose to sleep in a nearby tent after waking earlier to find the wolf tugging on his sleeping bag. That wolf had been fed by campers since it was a pup.

In another scenario, a wolf inflicted serious injuries when it bit a 12-year-old boy on the face in an Ontario park as the boy and his family slept outside without a tent. The animal was used to grabbing scraps from campsites. It, like many habituated wolves, also appeared to be obsessed with human clothing and gear and may have been chewing and tearing the sleeping bag before the attack began.

Generally, McNay wrote, in places where wolves “are protected and frequently encounter people, some level of negative conditioning should be applied to prevent habituated and food-conditioned behaviors in wolves.”

Two deaths linked to wolves occurred after McNay’s research was published. A 22-year-old man who went for a walk in remote Saskatchewan in November 2005 was followed and killed by a pack of wolves, according to a report attributed to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Subsequent investigations, however, found that the attack could have just as likely come from a black bear.

Last year, wolves killed a teacher jogging outside the village of Chignik Bay.

Wildlife officials caution that the public should take information like this in context. On one hand, it’s naive to think wolves never pose a threat. On the other hand, compared to bears the threat is relatively small.

“It’s not a matter of ‘There have been attacks so we should wipe out all wolves.’ We don’t do that with bears,” said state biologist Dave Battle. “But people need to understand the idea that wolves can never be aggressive around humans, it’s false.”

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